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Iraqi Hospitals Are War's New 'Killing Fields'

"What is going to happen to us?" asked Abu Nasr, looking over photos and death certificates of Sunni relatives abducted from a Baghdad hospital by Shiite militiamen. The body of one cousin was later found in a Shiite slum. (Photos By Amit R. Paley -- The Washington Post)

Sunnis' increasing suspicion of hospital workers is perhaps the most vivid illustration of their widespread distrust of the Shiite-led government. Suhaib al-Obeidi, 35, a supermarket owner from the heavily Sunni district of Adamiyah, said he lost his final ounce of confidence in the government during a brush with death in a hospital two weeks ago.

On a quiet weekday morning, as Obeidi unloaded canned chicken and Pepsi from a van and into his store, a gunfight broke out on the street and a spray of bullets struck him, he said -- first in his right shoulder, then in his back. As he tried to crawl away, another bored into his leg. A friend shoved his bleeding body into a taxi and took him to nearby al-Nuuman Hospital.

But when they arrived, a friendly doctor warned them that the Mahdi Army was coming to arrest Sunnis, Obeidi said. So they sneaked out to another hospital, Medical City in the Bab al -Muadam district, to get treatment.

"Tell me where you live!" a nurse at Medical City snapped at the arriving patients, Obeidi recalled, as the staff moved residents of mainly Sunni areas into a separate room.

A few moments later, he saw Mahdi Army troops handcuff five Sunni men who were donating blood -- including the friend who had brought him to the hospital -- and haul them out of the hospital, Obeidi said. A Sunni doctor ran up to him and said he would be killed unless he fled immediately.

Wearing only underwear and some bandages the doctor had applied to his wounds, Obeidi escaped in a taxi to the home of his in-laws in the upscale Mansour district. He lay in bed for an hour as he waited for the Sunni doctor to follow him from the hospital. The bed was drenched in so much blood that his family later dumped it in the trash.

"You were only a few minutes away from death," said the doctor, who arrived at the home an hour later. The doctor, one of the few Sunnis at Medical City, asked that his name not be used because he felt it would further endanger his life.

Inside an illegal clinic in a dingy apartment building, the doctor operated on Obeidi for seven hours. But Obeidi hasn't been able to get any follow-up treatment; he has vowed never to set foot in a hospital again, even if he is mortally wounded or deathly ill.

"I'd rather go to the pharmacy and take random simple medicine," he said.

The reluctance of Sunnis to enter hospitals is making it increasingly difficult to assess the number of casualties caused by sectarian violence. During a recent attack on Shiite pilgrims, a top Sunni political leader accused the Shiite-led government of ignoring large numbers of Sunnis who he said were also killed and wounded in the clash, though he was unable to offer even a rough estimate of the Sunni casualties.

"The situation is so bad that people are just treated inside their homes after being attacked by the Shia militias," said the official, Alaa Makki, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament. "The miserable fact is that most of the hospitals are controlled by these militias."

Qasim Yahya, a spokesman for the health minister, said he had never heard accusations that Sunnis have been taken from hospitals by Shiite militias or Iraqi security forces.


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